THE WAY IT WAS: Roll up your sleeves —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The expression of our leading artists has their own unique character. It can only be comprehended in the context of their aesthetic or social experience and engagements. The moment a critic tries to measure or compare achievements of our painters with western artists in terms and phrases employed by them, he seats our artist in the back row

There was a time every citizen stood up to make himself useful to the community. There was never dearth of volunteers for a good cause. These days there are only a few who speak up and step forward without an eye on a personal gain.

I am reminded of a blind man who was approached by a kind person who informed him, “Hafiz jee, they are cooking halwa.” The blind man whined, “Sahnoon key (What business of mine is that?)” The person shouted in his ear, “Hafiz jee, it is for you.” The blind man admonished him, “Fer tuhanoon key (In that case, what business of yours is that?)”

Fortunately there are still around people with warm hearts who believe in social activism and are willing to give part of their valuable time without the thought of an immediate reward. After independence the enthusiasm for building the new country slowly waned. By the time we were grown-ups the spirit was already tainted with a degree of cynicism.

In the late sixties, however, a new spirit infused our hearts. It was a burgeoning feeling that impelled people to unite to change established society, its values and norms. Artists and writers strove to create what expressed a closer identification and understanding of the society and the world they lived in.

It was during these times that the artists in Lahore got together and established an organisation that arranged its first independent show at the Lahore Museum in 1971. Subsequently, the Fine Arts Equity united with the writers, actors and musicians to form the Pakistan Artists Equity that represented their interests in television, radio and state cultural organisations throughout the country.

To escape state interference — to which the artists were subjected during the Lahore Museum exhibition — the fine arts wing of the Equity established an independent gallery at artist Moeen Najmi’s residence. Mr Najmi accepted the responsibility to curate exhibitions and direct its everyday affairs. Since the Equity was a strong representative organisation of visual and performing artists it was represented on the governing boards of the Lahore Arts Council and the Punjab Arts Council as well as the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, Islamabad.

The Equity supported the establishment of the provincial arts councils. In Punjab, art councils were also established in several major cities including Multan, Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and Murree. It also encouraged formation of a national theatre, people’s roaming theatre, a national folk and traditional heritage institution and a national art gallery. In the field of radio and television, the Equity negotiated an agreement with the authorities as a result of which the performance fee of the TV and Radio artists was substantially raised. All this happened in the course of a few years.

The conditions for arts and the artists might have continued to improve but for Zia ul Haq who banned all trade unions, student organisations and writers’ and artists’ associations. Immediately, the cultural mafia stepped in and once again took command of the state institutions from where the artists had worked so hard to remove them. (I hope Dr Enver Sajjad, who was very active in the formative years of the Equity, spares time some day from his creative writing and pens down the facts in greater detail).

The “cultural vultures” captured the meagre resources reserved for arts during the Zia regime. It is unfortunate that the mafia was allowed to maintain its hegemony even after the restoration of democracy. Ignoring collective interests of the artists caused the cultural institutions to lose support of the artists, and eventually, their clout with the government. The Punjab Arts Council, once a vibrant organisation, now lacks funds sometimes even to pay salaries of its staff — what to talk of holding an annual exhibition or a concert. The situation of the Lahore Arts Council (Alhamra) seems to be better, probably because it has two halls and display galleries where artists can come and exhibit their work or give a performance.

They wait for things to happen rather than reach out and make them happen. The Pakistan National Council of the Arts has held only six national exhibitions in three decades, most of them in the ‘70s. Not that it is primarily the officials’ fault. The main reason for this lack of activities is a lack of funds. But without the active support and participation by the artists these organisations can never get adequate funds from a government that considers modern art and culture an anathema. The government today would readily spend millions to woo the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal rather than spend a fraction of that on the arts.

It is laudable therefore that artists of Lahore and the Punjab rolled up their sleeves in 1985 and took their affairs in their own hands by establishing the Punjab Artists’ Association. The Association is presently holding its 19th annual exhibition and the 7th national show. In the two decades of its existence it has remained focused on promoting art and artists. It claims to have introduced scores of artists who are today nationally recognised. Its members seem determined to keep the arts alive and free in a society derailed by philistines, hijacked by ‘culture vultures’ and subverted by extremists.

When the Association was formed in 1985 there was hardly an art gallery of consequence. Since then, several galleries have been established. Private galleries have created extra space and freedom for artists. Governments are often too conservative or cautious for an artists’ calling. The galleries have established an everyday link between the artists and the buyers. There are many artists today who can live by their work. The art world has changed qualitatively.

But there have now emerged problems of another nature. Many of the gallery owners are now concerned only in making money and selling art as any other commodity. There are rumours that a few of them are even selling forgeries and flogging spurious copies of well-known artists’ work. In these circumstances the artists can be easily persuaded by private galleries to manufacture artworks for them to dupe their naïve customers. Artists perforce are tempted to increase their turnover. Fortunately, artists who manufacture works that have the stamp of their style but not the spirit of their soul cannot survive for long.

In the last half-century painting has achieved a high level of excellence in Pakistan. It has an unusual diversity of styles, expressions and concerns. The Pakistani artist has not worked with any national agenda but created works that are motivated by his individual rapport with nature, concern for people and society. In the present exhibition there are on display abstract and non-representational paintings; modern and traditional miniature; portraits and calligraphic renderings; eternal images of the female form; women’s rights and social issues; broad rural prospects, narrow city lanes; common sights and rare insights; individual visage of trees and delicate demeanour of flowers, tendril and leaves; myths and reality; humour, wit and plain anger; and many more observations, reflections, thoughts and asides, each distinct in temper, manner and mood.

There is today a great need to evolve and strengthen indigenous tools of art criticism with which we can evaluate our own artistic achievements. The use of language and terminology employed in the European context is often not appropriate for describing the intent and nature of a Third World artist’s work. The expression of our leading artists has their own unique character. It can only be comprehended in the context of their aesthetic or social experience and engagements. The moment a critic tries to measure or compare achievements of our painters with western artists in terms and phrases employed by them, he seats our artist in the back row. In any case analogies are mostly misleading and are best avoided.

Sadeqain and Shakir Ali both employed in their respective manner certain devices of cubism, but were they emulating or pursuing the ideals of cubism? No, they were not; not any more than Picasso when he derived inspiration from African sculpture. It is hoped that soon critical talent would emerge with tools and terms that can faithfully describe the concerns and achievements of Pakistani artists. It is only when we can expound and define the achievements of Pakistani artists in their own context and sever our dependence on modern post-colonial parlance that our artists will be truly understood and appreciated. For the moment let’s keep the sleeves rolled up.

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist